Voglio che tu mi tocchi - love and longing from Dante Alighieri to Christine and the Queens

Writing by Ruby Kellman. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.


What do Dante Alighieri and Christine and the Queens have in common? At first glance, not much. One is Il Sommo Poeta (the Supreme Poet), father of the Italian language and lynchpin of medieval European literature. The other is the professional name of French, genderqueer, experimental pop artist Héloise Letisser, who is writing and performing more than 700 years after him. However, last year Christine and the Queens released an EP entitled La vita nuova, echoing the title of a Dante text from 1294. And despite being strikingly modern in many ways, the EP is connected to its medieval counterpart in more than just name. The EP is accompanied by a breathtaking short film, shot at the iconic Opéra Garnier in Paris, and many critics have commented on the allusions to Dante in its visual imagery. For instance, El Hunt in NME notes that the ‘lust-filled basement’ where the film ends is a ‘kind of queered-up answer to Dante’s best-known work Inferno’. But close analysis of the EP also uncovers connections that reach back to the text of Dante’s own La vita nuova.

Dante’s La vita nuova is a collection of thirty poems connected in an overarching narrative by commentaries. This narrative is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s lifelong love for Beatrice, from their ‘love at first sight’ meeting to her death. The Christine and the Queens EP follows a more ambiguous narrative, but one that is certainly full of enough passion, longing and melancholy to rival the Sommo Poeta himself. Such stories of unrequited love and heartbreak are characteristic of courtly love. Courtly love is a literary construction of romantic love, which began with the troubadours (medieval lyric poets), although the term wasn’t coined until the 19th century. The central premise is that a Knight longs for a disdainful Lady and is ennobled by his love. The trope is, by definition, rigidly gendered and heteronormative, although it plays with patriarchal power dynamics by placing the Lady at a higher social position than the Knight.

Both Dante and Letissier play with these dynamics of gender and power in their work by experimenting with language and voice. In the EP, Letissier herself is the singing, first person protagonist. It is unsurprising that Letissier embodies the Knight - in an interview before her last eponymous album, she describes the way she draws on masculine aesthetics, saying ‘Every masculine hero narrative I could find I wanted to steal for myself and twist to my size’. The gender ambiguity continues with the “Lady”, who shifts between the masculine and the feminine throughout the EP. In the song ‘I disappear in your arms’, the lover is a ‘king’, whereas the title track ‘La vita nuova’ is a duet with American artist Caroline Polachek, who returns the Lady to a more traditional feminine positioning.

Dante’s Lady, on the other hand, is always Beatrice, paragon of feminine virtue. Beatrice is certainly above Dante - the poem ‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’, in which he raves about his Lady’s ‘valore’ (worth) and her ‘stato gentile’ (noble being), is addressed to other noble women rather than Beatrice herself, as he doesn’t dare speak to her directly. However, Dante clearly struggles with finding himself so in a woman’s power, and so he disempowers Beatrice by silencing her. While the Christine and the Queens EP features a passionate duet, with Letissier and Polachek alternating verses, Dante’s Lady is never permitted to speak. Joy Hambuechen Potter argues that, by rendering her mute, Dante sets up ‘a special relationship between the author and the male god of love, from which Beatrice [...] is excluded’ [1]. Indeed, this deity, the Lord Love, pops up frequently throughout the book to advise Dante like a heavenly agony uncle, for instance consoling him after Beatrice’s rejection. Importantly, the Lord Love often speaks in Latin, while the rest of the text is written in vernacular Italian. According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Dante used the Tuscan dialect in his love poetry so that he could ‘make his words understandable to the ladies who found Latin verses difficult to comprehend’ [2]. By having him speak in Latin, Lord Love is distinguished and elevated, above even the Lady Beatrice; clearly, Dante’s true master is Love himself.

Playing with language is also important on the Christine and the Queens EP. Christine and the Queens songs are known for switching between languages. Her previous album, Chris, contained English and French versions of every song, and La vita nuova features two versions of the same track, both written by Letissier - one in French (‘Je disparais dans tes bras’) and the other in English (‘I disappear in your arms’). This self-translation allows Letissier to explore the clashing emotions that love brings. Rainier Grutman argues that, unlike in traditional translation, ‘the distinction between original and (self) translation [...] collapses [so that] both texts can be referred to as “variants” or “versions” of comparable status’ [3], and this is the case for Letissier, who uses these two versions of the same love story to present two different, but equally important, emotional interpretations of it. The French begins with ‘Tu voudrais’ (You would like), while the corresponding English is ‘Don’t you dare’, showing that the tone in the English version is much more defiant, while the French is resigned and accepting of the lover’s desires. In the chorus, Letissier asks in French ‘pourrais-tu m’aimer?’ (could you love me?), questioning, in true courtly fashion, whether the Lady could ever love her back; in English she sings, with scepticism, ‘you say you love me’, positioning the Lady as raising, then dashing, her hopes of reciprocated affection. In these ways, the French variant shows a passive, mournful courtly Knight, longing in vain for her Lady, while the English version’s protagonist is frustrated and hostile at the way she has been treated. Dante and Christine and the Queens are thus connected by their flexible, multilingual writing, moving between different languages in an attempt to reconcile love’s contradictions.

Courtly love is full of these contradictions. In fact, they are central - the Knight adores the Lady and is ennobled through his devotion, while knowing that he is doomed to be rejected. Francis X. Newman describes courtly love as ‘a doctrine of paradoxes, a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent’ [4]. The tensions between sensuality and spirituality are particularly noticeable in both La vita nuovas. Initially, it seems difficult for Dante to reconcile sexual desire with spirituality and religion. However, Keith Oatley argues that in La Vita Nuova Dante starts to develop his idea that ‘we come to know the nature of God’s love by experiencing human love’ [5], notably sexual love. Beatrice herself becomes a symbol of this transformation from earthly to divine love. In the poem ‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’, Dante writes that ‘Madonna [Beatrice] è disiata in sommo cielo’ (the Lady is desired in high heaven). He imagines that Beatrice is summoned to Heaven for her superlative beauty and gentility, and thus transforms her into an angelic figure. As an angel, a pure, immortal and presumably asexual being, Beatrice is simultaneously desexualised and spiritualised. In this way, Dante is able to resolve this apparent paradox by making spirituality contingent upon sexuality.

Oatley argues that ‘whereas for Dante union with the beloved was imaginative and spiritual, we moderns tend to see physical union as critical’ [5], and indeed we can see that in the Christine and the Queens EP sexuality plays a larger role. For instance, in the song ‘La vita nuova’, each verse ends with ‘voglio fare l’amore con questa canzone’ (I want to make love with this song), a line which almost takes the role of the congedo in a Dantean poem - the closing lines, in which the poem is dismissed to do its writer’s bidding. Despite the more secular modern context, Letissier still merges religious and romantic imagery. In the second verse of ‘I disappear in your arms’, she sings ‘If they’re crying then you must be king | I kneel for my god’. Arguably, the idea of kneeling before one’s lover is the ultimate, eternal courtly image, where the Knight literally places himself on a lower level than his Lady in a reflection of her social superiority - an image that has trickled into contemporary romance as marriage proposals on bended knee. In Letissier’s gender-swapped variation, where the Lady is in fact a ‘king’, this ‘king’ is conflated with a ‘god’, blurring earthly romance with the divine. As Anna Gaca puts it in her Pitchfork review, Letissier brings together the ‘sacred and profane’.

One final connection between the two works is a sense of longing. In the Christine and the Queens EP, she returns often to the idea of touch, for instance in ‘Mountains (we met)’ and particularly in the title song. ‘La vita nuova’ alternates between lyrics in Italian and English, with both verses beginning: ‘Voglio che tu mi tocchi con la tua rabbia | Voglio che tu mi tocchi con il tuo furore’ (I want you to touch me with your rage | I want you to touch me with your fury). The repetition of ‘voglio che tu mi tocchi’ underlines this emphasis on touch, while touch itself is linked to anger and fury. To be precise, then, this ‘touch’ is not the tender caress of a lover, but the cruel hand of the disdainful Lady. As Beverly Evans argues, such ‘cruelty [is] part and parcel of countless courtly laments’ [6], even into the present day. In true masochistic courtly fashion, we see our Knight beg for this touch, desperate for any contact, no matter how painful, from her unrequited love. The sense of yearning we get from the verb ‘voglio’ is underscored by soaring, longing vocals in the second line, emphasising the singers’ unmet desire.

Dante’s desire, too, is sensual and unfulfilled, but manifests through gaze, rather than touch. Whilst gaze seems to be more chaste and distant than touch, in fact for Dante the eyes have tremendous power and sensual impact. From their ‘love at first sight’ meeting, Dante’s relationship with Beatrice is based mainly on a longing or averted gaze. In the poem ‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’, Dante makes it clear that to presume to look at a Lady as splendid as his Beatrice is a dangerous act. He says ‘e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere | diveria nobil cosa, o si morria’ (and he who suffers through to stay and look at her | is ennobled, or dies) - such a gaze could be ennobling, but is just as likely to kill. Much like for Letissier, the sensual desire (in this case, to look rather than to touch) is overwhelming, despite the likely result of pain. This image of the wounding gaze returns in the following stanza in the line ‘che feron li occhi a qual che allor la guati’ (the eyes of those who gaze upon her are wounded) - those who dare meet the Lady’s gaze will find themselves injured. Hambuechen Potter argues that ‘Dante seems careful not to “see” Beatrice very much’ [1], avoiding the seductive, possessive power of direct, intent gaze in order to preserve her purity. It certainly seems that Dante is aware and afraid of the sensual power of the gaze, and thus makes a conscious effort to restrain it. Both poets, though evoking different senses, express the conflict a courtly lover feels between sensual desire and the need to discipline it, evoking imagery of touch or gaze in positioning the Lady as their unreachable superior.

Christine and the Queens’ La vita nuova reaches back to Dante Alighieri in more ways than one. As well as sharing a name, both texts explore courtly love in all its tensions and contradictions, by playing with gender, power and voice. Both also switch effortlessly between languages - Dante as part of the gender dynamics of his poems, Letissier to explore love’s ambiguities. Courtly love, in all its humiliation, passion and despair, proves itself to stand the test of time. From medieval poetry to avant garde pop, longing is eternal.

References:

[1] Joy Hambuechen Potter, ‘Beatrice, Dead or Alive: Love in the Vita Nuova’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 32:1 (1990), 60-84.

[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Finding Feminist Readings: Dante-Yeats’, Social Text, 3 (1980), 73-87.

[3] Rainier Grutman, ‘Self-translation’, in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, ed. by Mona Baker and Gabriela Saldanha, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 257-260.

[4] Francis X. Newman (ed.), The Meaning of Courtly Love (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1967).

[5] Keith Oatley, ‘Dante’s Love and the Creation of a New Poetry’, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1:3 (2007), 140-147.

[6] Beverly J. Evans, ‘Courtly Literature: “Yesterday” is Today’, in The Legacy of Courtly Literature from Medieval to Contemporary Culture, ed. by Deborah Nelson-Campbell and Rouben Cholakain (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 115-132.

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